October 14, 2014

Byrd inspires current members of Congress to curb presidential power | Charleston Gazette

A lifelong defender of the “separation of powers” between the three branches of American government, the late U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd believed the Senate had to stop any president from usurping its role in determining policies — especially policies leading to military invasions and wars.

“Every West Virginian who has paid attention to the political process over the last half century knows that, if you violated the Constitution, you would have the wrath of Robert Byrd,” said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., who now holds the seat that was Byrd’s between 1959 and 2010.

Between 1993 and 2000, Byrd vigorously opposed some of President Bill Clinton’s key political goals, among them the “line-item veto,” which would allow presidents to strike out any line from any legislation Congress passed. Byrd won that fight against his fellow Democrat.

In 2002, Byrd opposed the Iraq war resolution backed by President George W. Bush. Byrd believed that resolution, which passed the Senate 77-23, unconstitutionally shifted more power away from Congress.

Now, some members of Congress believe President Obama is misusing authority that was granted to Bush after the Sept. 11, 2001, al-Qaida terrorist attacks to go after militants of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (the group also known as ISIS or Islamic State).

“I have more admiration for Senator Byrd today than I had when he was in the Senate, now that I am sitting here myself,” Manchin said last week.

With one dissenter, Congress passed the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force three days after the al-Qaida attacks. It authorized Bush and subsequent presidents to use “necessary and appropriate” force against anyone involved in the attacks.

“I believe we need to come back and repeal that,” Manchin said.

White House officials have said the Obama administration’s legal reasoning for military action against ISIL stems from the 2001 authorization from Congress.

“Under George Bush’s AUMF, the White House thinks they have all the approval they need from Congress. I believe that is wrong,” Manchin said. “Byrd would be standing with 10 feet of constitutional books arguing against this.”

Other members of the Senate feel the same. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. and longtime supporter of Obama, had “a spirited discussion” with him earlier this year about the need to get congressional approval before going to war against ISIL, The New York Times reported last week.

“Senator Tim Kaine is adamant that the president needs to come back to Congress to get reauthorization,” Manchin said. “I truly believe the president needs to make his case to get involved in Syria, before getting involved in a civil war that could last for years.”

Asked if he believes the president needs congressional authority for his actions against ISIL, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., emphasized the dangers posed by the group.

“ISIL is a cowardly but dangerous enemy, a practitioner of heinous acts of brutality. The group poses a very real threat, not only to U.S. personnel and facilities in the region, but also to the stability of the Middle East as a whole. If ISIL goes unchecked, they have the potential to launch attacks directly at the United States. Their campaign of terror must end,” Rockefeller said. “With that goal in mind, the president has begun to take steps to degrade ISIL through powerful airstrikes. However, those airstrikes alone will not be sufficient to truly destroy ISIL, and this will not be a quick or easy operation. These realities will force many hard decisions in the months ahead.”

Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., has served in the House of Representatives for nearly 40 years, and often cites Byrd as his mentor and primary influence.

“Senator Byrd taught us to look to the Constitution in times of war. He taught us that open and transparent debates would keep our nation true to its values and principles,” said Rahall, who voted for the 2001 AUMF after the al-Qaida attacks but against the 2002 Iraq war resolution giving Bush increased powers to wage war.

Rockefeller voted for the 2001 AUMF and the 2002 Iraq war resolution. He called the 2002 vote “one of the most difficult decisions I have had to make in my [then] 18 years in the Senate.”

David Corbin, a Byrd biographer and member of the senator’s staff for 26 years, said, “Byrd was a firm believer in Congress as part of the three branches of power. Congress was equal to the president.

“Before you commit combat troops on the ground, it should be subjected to congressional oversight. Byrd was a firm believer that only Congress has the right to declare war,” Corbin said.

In February 2003, Byrd delivered a moving speech criticizing the Senate for failing to block the shift of war powers to the president.

“There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war,” Byrd said. “We stand passively mute in the United States Senate, paralyzed by our own uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events.”

Corbin wrote, “To Byrd, Bush was attempting to disrupt, if not destroy, the system of checks and balances that America’s founding fathers established.”

Byrd and Obama became friends after Obama joined the Senate in 2004, and Obama headlined the West Virginia Democratic Party’s annual fundraiser in 2006, during Byrd’s last re-election campaign. However, less than a month after Obama took office, Byrd criticized his decision to appoint administrative “czars” who did not have to win Senate approval to oversee federal agencies.

Rahall said he believes Congress will have an opportunity to examine part of the president’s Middle East strategy — the training and arming of Syrian rebels — soon.

The House resolution granting Obama the authority to train Syrian rebels expires in December, Rahall said, giving “Congress and the American people another opportunity to take a look at the situation.”

Manchin said. “I can only imagine if Robert C. Byrd were still here and what we would hear from him. I was one of the few Democrats who said I do not think we should be arming and training people who we don’t know what side of the fence they will be on. The weapons we give them will be used against us, sooner or later.

“Leaders have been warned for centuries that this is an area, because of deep sectarian and religious differences, that will not be changed in a reasonable manner or through force.

“They want to drag us into another civil war in Syria. Bashar al-Assad is a barbarian dictator who has committed genocide on his own people. In that part of the world, Saddam Hussein did the same in Iraq, as did Moammar Kadafi in Libya.”

Highly critical of Assad, Manchin expressed frustration that the United States has received no commitments for help from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey or the United Arab Emirates.

“Robert C. Byrd would say. ‘When it comes time to be using our resources and our military might in a war, you need the approval of Congress,’” Manchin said. “That is where I stand and that is where Robert C. Byrd would be.”

By:  Paul Nyden